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Sunday, December 27, 2009

My (Irrelevant) Eclipse Ballot

“With the close of each racing year comes the interesting problem of the best horse…In past years this was much easier than it is in the present. Today commercialism cuts an important figure, crowding old-fashioned ‘sportsmanship’ to the wall. Horses are no longer raced purely as ‘sport’ much as we may desire to delude ourselves, and the public, on this point. Today, when one has a good horse, instead of being ready to ‘meet all comers,’ as the old saying ran, it is a question, far, far too frequently, of how such a meeting would result when the horse or mare goes to stud.”

No, this passage isn’t from a contemporary source. In fact, it is from an article published in Outing magazine—in 1906.

The author Wilfred Pond is lamenting that fact that the champion 3-year-old colt Sysonby and champion 3-year-old filly Artful—both unbeaten for the year—failed to meet on the track, unlike the previous year when, as 2-year-olds, the filly crushed Sysonby in the Futurity:

“Yet, as three-year-olds, they never met. Public allegiance is divided; as will be told later, the public was absolutely clamoring for such a meeting, as neither had been beaten as three-year-olds, and between them rested the claim to pre-eminence.”

My, isn’t the old adage true: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”?

So, here we are in a quandary regarding who should reign as 2009’s Horse of the Year—the undefeated 5-year-old mare Zenyatta, fresh off defeating males in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, yet lightly campaigned this year and only in California, or the more heavily-tried 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, eight for eight this year running over seven different tracks in six different states, who thrice took on males and defeated all of them, and yet sat out the Breeders’ Cup.

Since the idea of sharing the title was summarily dismissed by those responsible for Eclipse voting (actually two-thirds of the entities vetoed the idea—with the Daily Racing Form supporting a co-winners’ option), on January 18, 2010, one of these great race horses will be named “Horse of the Year” and one won’t. Yet, as Gary West and others have rightly argued, it won’t make one iota of difference, as both have indeed transcended such man-made constructs and already entered into the realm of legends.

That said, it is unfortunate that our year-end awards, unlike the European Cartier awards, exclude any fan participation, as well as lack a thoughtful, well-defined process based on accumulated records, not merely the result of a single (Breeders’ Cup) race or personal voter bias. For the Cartier awards, points are awarded for graded (group) races (much like my esteemed colleague Patrick over at Handride as been vocalizing for years, and in this recent Thoroughbred Times article), and those points are specifically factored into the final award decision, along with votes from racing journalists and fans.

So, even though my voice as a fan in this process is completely irrelevant, here are my 2009 Eclipse selections, with my top three finalists and a few “break-out” stars and honorable mentions, beginning with some of the non-equine categories:

Outstanding Trainer: Jonathan Sheppard
Personally, I don’t believe the outstanding trainer should be decided based solely on who has the largest number of winners, as you have to question how great a role an individual trainer plays when he/she runs a massive “corporate” stable that stretches from coast-to-coast. I base my opinion on what a trainer gets out of the horses he/she is given, and, with that in mind, no one did a finer job this year than Jonathan Sheppard—if for no other reason than 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight and well-traveled sprinter Informed Decision. Still, Steve Asmussen didn’t muck up Rachel Alexandra or most of the other top horses he acquired this year, so I respect his mention among the top echelon. It may appear gratuitous to nominate the recently-deceased Bobby Frankel, but he did have an extraordinary year, including Stardom Bound winning the G1 Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks early in the year (she only began losing after transferring to Rick Dutrow), Champs Elysees winning the G1 Canadian International, and the tremendous mare Ventura who danced every big dance this year, including a victory in the G1 Woodbine Mile over males and G1 Matriarch after Frankel’s death.

1. Jonathan Sheppard
2. Steve Asmussen
3. Bobby Frankel

Breakout Star: Tim Ice
The great performance of 3-year-old Summer Bird elevated Ice to nation-wide acclaim. With the newly-acquired patronage of blue-blood racing matriarch Marylou Whitney and a promised stable shift to New York next spring, Tim Ice is definitely a young trainer on the rise.

Outstanding Jockey: Ramon Dominguez
In racing, there’s no such thing as a “sure” thing—but if Ramon Dominguez is riding, you can almost count on an ITM finish. He dominated every race meeting in New York this year, winning nearly 400 races and riding such quality horses as Fabulous Strike and Gio Ponti. It was actually a tougher choice between veteran Garrett Gomez and young phenom Joel Rosario, but I’m giving the slight edge to Gomez for his steely consistency when it comes to the big races.

1. Ramon Dominguez
2. Garrett Gomez
3. Joel Rosario

Breakout Star: Rajiv Maragh
Darley started riding him this year, and he won multiple G1s with Seventh Street (Apple Blossom, Go for Wand) and Music Note (Ballerina, Beldame). The coup de grace: Helen Pitts selecting him from among many contenders, to ride Einstein in the G2 Clark—a nice third-place finish behind youngsters Blame and Misremembered. I look forward to even better results in 2010.

Now for the equine categories, beginning with the 2-year-old categories—both of which I have ambivalent feelings so I’ll simply list my rather uninspired top three choices.

Two-year-old Male: Lookin At Lucky
1. Lookin At Lucky
2. Noble’s Promise
3. Buddy’s Saint

Two-year-old Female: Hot Dixie Chick
1. Hot Dixie Chick
2. She Be Wild
3. Blind Luck

Three-year-old Male: Summer Bird
In my mind, this is a no-brainer: Summer Bird won the G1 Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished a magnificent third in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic over a surface he probably didn’t relish. Mine That Bird’s amazing Kentucky Derby win is a good enough reason, but his runner-up finish to Rachel Alexandra in the G1 Preakness and third-place finish in the G1 Belmont outweighs his poor all-weather showings in California (memo to his connections: stick to real dirt!). After victories in the G3 Tampa Bay Derby and G2 Illinois Derby, Musket Man put in dynamic third-place finishes in the G1 Kentucky Derby and G1 Preakness before heading to the sidelines with a bone bruise preparing for the G1 Haskell in August. A personal preference choice here.

1. Summer Bird
2. Mine That Bird
3. Musket Man

Ones to Watch for 2010: Courageous Cat
Courageous Cat may appear an unlikely choice considering he’s a turf horse who didn’t break his maiden until June. However, this late bloomer capped a highly-successful 3-year-old campaign with a second-place finish to Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.

Three-year-old Female: Rachel Alexandra
Quite simply, there’s no need to justify this choice—she’s one of the very best 3-year-olds to race this decade. It’s harder to choose just two others, as it has been a banner year for 3-year-old fillies. I’ll have to go with the lightly-raced Sara Louise who followed up her fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint with a victory in the G2 Top Flight. Careless Jewel also put on a magnificent show, particularly in the G1 Alabama, before failing over the Santa Anita Pro-Ride in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Ladies Classic). Other notable contenders: Milwaukee Appeal, Flashing and pre-IEAH/Rick Dutrow Stardom Bound.

1. Rachel Alexandra
2. Sara Louise
3. Careless Jewel

Older Male: Einstein
What I like about Einstein is his ability to win all on surfaces—turf, dirt and all-weather. He’s a gutsy horse who gives 100% no matter what, and the breadth of his 2009 campaign (although not dominant) makes him the best of older horses. Gio Ponti’s four G1 wins were all on turf, yet his second-place finish to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic puts him in contention here. Another one who was up and down, Macho Again could always be counted on for a good showing.

1. Einstein
2. Gio Ponti
3. Macho Again

One to Watch for 2010: Star Guitar
4-year-old Star Guitar won seven of nine races this year—all for Louisiana-breds. Yet, when he ventured into the G3 Alysheba at Churchill Downs, he finished third, less than two lengths behind subsequently G1 Whitney victor Bullsbay and Cool Coal Man. I don’t know if trainer Al Stall Jr. plans a more ambitious campaign for him in 2010, but I’d love to see him try.

Older Female: Zenyatta
How can you argument with perfection? Even though she didn’t race outside of California this year and engaged in a very conservative campaign, Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Her stablemate Life Is Sweet won the G2 Santa Margarita along with the G2 El Encino and G2 La Canada early in the year, then finished a nice second to Zenyatta in the G2 Milady before testing open company, finishing an impressively strong-closing third in the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup. Winning the G1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Ladies Classic) solidified my vote for her here. I’m still scratching my head over Seventh Street being entered in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint—her G1 wins (Apple Blossom, Go For Wand) and other G1 runner-up finishes (Ogden Phipps, Ruffian) were all in routes this year. Had the Breeders’ Cup been contested over dirt...Seventh Street may be the mare we’d all be talking about.

1. Zenyatta
2. Life Is Sweet
3. Seventh Street

Female Sprinter: Informed Decision
Six wins in seven races, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint—another no-brainer selecting Informed Decision. Carlsbad’s runner-up performance to her in the G2 Thoroughbred Club of America—plus victories in the G2 Hollywood Oaks and record-setting G3 Rancho Bernardo—make her hard to ignore, despite not running in the Breeders’ Cup (not nominated). Sara Louise crushed the G3 Victory Ride before being defeated (by a head) by Indian Blessing in the G2 Gallant Bloom; her first try on all-weather resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but she followed that up with a victory in the G2 Top Flight.

1. Informed Decision
2. Carlsbad
3. Sara Louise

Male Sprinter: Kodiak Kowboy
His late scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Sprint shouldn’t be held against him; this colt faced the venerable sprinter warrior Fabulous Strike three times, defeating him in April’s G1 Carter, and then again in October’s G1 Vosburgh. He ended the year winning the G1 Cigar Mile, and only finished out of the money once in eight races this year. Fabulous Strike is just a monster; facing top company, in five races this year, he finished either first or second in all of them. I know lots of West Coast people like Zensational, but he just didn’t beat anything in his three G1 victories (Triple Bend, Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien) this year, and lost when it counted most. Racing mostly in CA-bred company, Dancing in Silks wouldn’t have been in my top three, even after his victory in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint—yet that form was confirmed when California Cup Sprint runner-up M One Rifle came back to win the G1 Malibu this past weekend, making Dancing in Silks, at least in my eyes, the best of the West.

1. Kodiak Kowboy
2. Fabulous Strike
3. Dancing in Silks

Male Turf Horse: Gio Ponti
I can’t argue with four G1 turf victories, but I’m strongly tempted to rank Cloudy’s Knight above Gio Ponti. 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight was just magnificent this year, and here’s hoping for a long, healthy 2010 campaign. Presious Passion is another charmer, nearly wiring the G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf after victories in the G1 United Nations and G1 Clement Hirsch.

1. Gio Ponti
2. Cloudy’s Knight
3. Presious Passion

Female Turf Horse: Ventura
She could have (and maybe should have) won in multiple categories, but to my mind, Ventura fits best as the top female turf horse, off her wins in the G1 Woodbine Mile and G1 Matriarch, and second-place (by a nose) finish to Gio Ponti in the G1 Kilroe Mile. Her second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, and victory in the G1 Flower Bowl, places Pure Clan ahead of Diamondrella, who won two G1s on turf (Just a Game, First Lady)—including two victories over Forever Together. Switching her to Rick Dutrow just before the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (where she finished well back) and then needlessly shipping her back and forth across country before the G1 Matriarch (where she did finish third) didn’t help her, but her prior performances this year rate her in good stead. Honorable mentions: Forever Together and Magical Fantasy.

1. Ventura
2. Pure Clan
3. Diamondrella

Horse of the Year: Rachel Alexandra
Sorry, Zenyatta fans, but the ambitious campaign, record-setting dominant wins and three victories in open company over seven different dirt tracks makes Rachel Alexandra the best horse in America this year. Everyone’s certainly entitled to their opinion, and this is mine, which I proudly share with the likes of Steven Crist, Randy Moss, Andrew Beyer, Bob Fortus, Nick Kling and others in selecting Rachel Alexandra.

Will I be disappointed if Zenyatta wins? Honestly, yes, because it will only provide greater credence to a bad trend—the overrated nature of the Breeders’ Cup, at the expense of true racing campaigns, which encourages less, not more, race starts for our stars. That’s not what we need, but I won’t begrudge Zenyatta her moment (although the damn “love fests”, first at Hollywood and then Santa Anita, are really over-the-top). Gio Ponti would naturally be a solid third-choice, but I’m going with my heart—Cloudy’s Knight is undoubtedly one of the best stories in horse racing this year.

1. Rachel Alexandra
2. Zenyatta
3. Cloudy’s Knight

Horse Racing

* Wilfred P. Pond “The Best Horse of the 1905 Racing Season: An Overrated Sysonby” Outing, Vol. XLVII, no. 5 (February 1906) pp. 6.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you never saw Zenyatta in person. She is beyond awe-inspiring. The crowd gasps when she firsg appears in the paddock. Without a doubt she is the most gorgeous horse on the planet, with a personality that knocks you flat. She finds the crowd amusing, believe it or not, and entertains them with her struts and tango moves.

But when she races that's even more awe-inspiring. She never runs any harder than she has to to win, so her Beyer figures aren't spectacular. She does not know how to lose a race, even though she seems so nonchalant about it 3/4 of the way around the track. And she loves what she does, ears forward at the finish.

Lovefest at Hollywood and
Santa Anita? Yes! And thank goodness for such a horse in these dire, dark times.

EG said...

To the anon above, I agree that Zenyatta has an awe-inspiring presence, but I'm not sure how your comment addresses Valerie's specific arguments for Rachel as HOY. Should HOY be awarded to the prettiest pony? Given the lack of criteria, that's as valid a reason as any, but I would rather the voters consider the horse's body of work for the season and reward a willingness to take risks in pursuit of greatness.

I'm also curious as to how any racing year that includes Rachel, Zenyatta, Summer Bird, and Mine That Bird's great Derby upset could be considered "dire times." I thought this year was fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Good choices Valerie. The only thing I would change would be to drop Macho Again and put Cloudy's Knight on the Older Male ballot.
Love the Rachel Alexandra pick.
Anonymous-Rachel is the same exact way in person, she takes your breath away, that's what helps define the "greats", thier presence on and off track.

Anonymous said...

By mentioning "dire times," I was referring to the world beyond the racetrack.

And I was addressing the blogger's putdowns regarding Zenyatta's appearances in Hollywood and Santa Anita after her retirement. People would go to the racetrack just to see her in the flesh, whether she runs or not. And that helps the sport, which needs a lot more fans.

I frankly think the Eclipse award for HOY has everything to do with the manipulations of the horse's connections and little to do with the horse's greatness. It has less meaning than usual this particular year.

BTW I'm not trying to run down Rachel Alexandra. I HOPE I'll get to see her race next year, and I hope she's still interested in running next year.

Eddie D. said...

Other than you not linking to my support of Rachel Alexandra, this was a great read. :)

I really liked your point about over valuing the Breeders' Cup, which is one I hadn't seen made elsewhere.

I DO think a $5-million race going 1 1/4 miles on the main track should be of some importance, but it shouldn't be viewed as an "all in" chip.

SaratogaSpa said...

Nice summation on why Rachel deserves HOTY. I am pleased thus far that writers whose opinions I greatly respect such as Beyer, Crist and Kling all feel Rachel deserves the HOTY

Anonymous said...

I wonder if HOY picks would be changed if Mr. Jackson came out tomorrow and said that Rachel would NOT race in 2010. To be honest, I think my pick might.

Perhaps Valerie's comments about Cloudy's Knight illustrate my point. I really respect and appreciate horses (and connections) that continue to race past 2 and 3 years old. When two deserving horses are vying for honors, I usually side with the older horse, or the horse planning on returning to the track, even if his or her campaign was slightly less spectacular. Owners and horses should be rewarded for long and healthy campaigns.

C said...

On the racetrack, Rachel is every bit as awe-inspiring as Zenyatta. Granted, Zenyatta has a more engaging "personality" but that is not a criterion for HOTY.
The main edge that Zenyatta has, even with her extremely sparse campaign, is that she accomplished her goals (and then, thanks to Rachel, her "added" goal of beating the boys) in the LAST six months of the year. Unfortunately, barring a Triple Crown achievement (which will never happen again- I know, easy to say), the accomplishments of horses in the FIRST six months of the year are almost completely IRRELEVANT and discounted. There are many sources of this bias: "what have you done for me lately?" syndrome, the short term memories of most people/voters, the belief in the false HYPE of a SINGLE "championship" a la super bowl race day (the BC, where the top turf horse in the country races on synth??? and the "top" horse in the world (Sea The Stars) stays home), the weight given to a more mature horse than to a less mature horse i.e. Mine That Bird in May and June vs. Summer Bird in August and September.
Add to this that, for most people, emotion trumps reason and Zenyatta, with her personality and amazing BC win, evokes more emotion, which clouds the fact that her incredible single race achievement cannot outweigh the spectacular multiple race achievements of Rachel.
There is NO DOUBT that those who are voting for Zenyatta would STILL DO SO if she had JUST RUN ONCE THIS YEAR: her BC Classic victory is their overriding factor that trumps all other accomplishments by all other horses.
You are so right, Foolish Pleasure, that a Zenyatta HOY vote is a vote for LESS racing from the sports top horses. A HOY Eclipse for Zenyatta (as would have been the case with the GREAT Midnite Lute last year) would guarantee a maximum of four or five races per year (or FEWER) for the best horses in America.
This isn't new or unique to this country but the idea will be affirmed and reinforced. How pathetic is it that there was no Zarkava this year and no Sea The Stars next year? The owners of Goldikova, Conduit, Einstein, Curlin and Rachel (same great sportsman), Cloudy's Knight, etc. should be given a special Eclipse Award for doing what was commonplace until the 1970's- keeping their champions where they belong as long as they are sound (horses are never "safe") - on the racetrack.

STEVE BREM said...

I am a long way removed from the argument being way down here but my lasting memory of Rachel Alexander was the merciless hiding she took to win the Woodward. That ought to have set the cause of USA racing back years. I wouldn't be surprised if she rejects that kind of pain in the future. HOTY looks like a classic East v West standoff.

Nancy said...

Correction - Twice Over came in 3rd in the Classic, Summer Bird came in 4th.

tvnewsbadge said...

Steve Brem said "my lasting memory of Rachel Alexander was the merciless hiding she took to win the Woodward."

Wow, I can't believe I had forgotten all about that, but she didn't take the abuse to win the Woodward because she had it all locked up at that point.

Spec was that someone wanted her to do it in record time, and that's why the beating.

What really shocked me is how many folks who claim to love this horse actually defended it.

The Turk said...

I like your Einstein selection very much although it seems that Gio Ponti is the more popular choice. I also liked your Mine That Bird as runner up to Summer Bird. If I were voting I'd pick Zenyatta as HOY. I thought the Classic win was too impressive to ignore, more impressive then the Woodward and at least equal the Preakness and Haskell of RA.
I like Bribon (Fr) very much and he gets my personal favorite award. Your ballot is not irrelevant as your opinion is one of the best to be found on this internet-thingy. Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

"Will I be disappointed if Zenyatta wins? Honestly, yes, because it will only provide greater credence to a bad trend—the overrated nature of the Breeders’ Cup, at the expense of true racing campaigns, which encourages less, not more, race starts for our stars. That’s not what we need, but I won’t begrudge Zenyatta her moment (although the damn “love fests”, first at Hollywood and then Santa Anita, are really over-the-top)."

That's certainly a fair point, but I'll play Devil's Advocate for a moment here and suggest that giving Rachel the award gives credence to another bad, yet not recent, trend in horse racing, consistently overvaluing the performance of 3 year olds. I believe this is a huge problem for horse racing in this country, great horses are consistently pushed to perform in age restricted races, usually at the expense of long campaigns although hopefully not in Rachel's case.

Rachel raced in a grand total of one non-age restricted race all year, the Woodward. Based on that, I do not believe she deserves horse of the year. Had she run once more in the JCGC and won it, sure, but I think she is being given too much credit for beating an injury depleted class of 3yo colts and an almost non-existent class of 3yo fillies.

Keep in mind that these comments are being written by someone who believes the Triple Crown should be for 4yo and up, and that year end awards being given by sportswriters are generally a complete waste of time, so take it with a grain of salt. :)